Abortion opponents say bill harbors ‘hidden mandate’

By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar
Associated Press / July 22, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Democratic lawmakers opposed to federal funding for abortions said yesterday the House leadership’s healthcare bill contains a “hidden mandate’’ that would allow taxpayer dollars to be used to end pregnancies.

It’s the latest controversy to hit the healthcare overhaul, though abortion is not mentioned in the 1,018-page bill Democratic leaders hope will be approved by the last of three House committees this week. Supporters of the legislation say that means the bill is neutral.

But abortion opponents say the bill’s silence is precisely the problem. Without an explicit prohibition on federal funding for abortion, it could be included in taxpayer-subsidized coverage offered through the health overhaul plan, abortion opponents say.

“We cannot support any healthcare reform proposal unless it explicitly excludes abortion from the scope of any government-defined or subsidized health insurance plan,’’ a group of 20 Democratic representatives said in a June 25 letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Representative Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat who helped draft the letter to Pelosi, plans to join lawmakers of both parties today at a news conference to criticize the legislation.

The Supreme Court has established a woman’s right to abortion, but federal law prohibits government funds from being used to pay for the procedure in most cases. However, nearly 90 percent of employer-based private insurance plans routinely cover abortion.

The Democratic health overhaul plan envisions setting up a health insurance marketplace through which individuals and firms could get coverage similar to what’s now available for employees of large companies. Government subsidies would be available for individuals and families making up to four times the US poverty level. Abortion rights supporters say prohibiting plans in the new market from covering the procedure amounts to taking away a right that women now have.

House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Henry Waxman of California is trying to find a compromise, but that may not be easy. Not only do abortion opponents want to block funding, they also want to make sure the procedure is not included in the benefits package.